River Family

Dear Reader,

   “Come meet me somwhere on this BEAUTIFUL RIVER land the plane and grab your paddle we float for a day. I said to myself today I gots to meet this women! Don’t worry about man women thing I’m 66 I’ve out lived my pecker ! Ha” 

   I laughed out loud as I read the comment written on my last newsletter by someone who called himself “Tow Head Steve.” He left me a phone number on the comment and I dialed it, still chuckling from the “out lived my pecker” line. Age has never been a barrier between my friends and I; I have quite a few friends who are very close to me in heart but very far from me in age. When I journeyed to the headwaters of the Mississippi in 2019, I traveled up there in a van with three of my closest river friends, who are all over 60 years old. We had a blast!

   I get along well with older people. I listen a lot and learn and laugh and realize that age is just something our bodies are. I treasure the friendships I have with my older friends. If anything, they are even closer to me. They have seen more, know more, and will be gone sooner. They are closer to realizing the end and that makes them have their priorities right. They laugh easier and worry less. Younger people could afford to be friends with older people – listening to those who have lived an entire life helps me make more informed decisions on my own path. And I genuinely enjoy the connections, as I believe my friends do too. 

  Tow Head Steve picked up the phone enthusiastically. I had no idea who this guy was, but expected a local Cajun. Steve explained how he had read my newsletter “Faces in Places” and wanted to meet up on the Bayou Teche; he was on the Teche in Breaux Bridge but was leaving in a few days downstream.

   “Wait, where did you start?” I asked, starting to put it together why this guy didn’t have a Cajun accent. 

   “North Carolina, six months ago. Headed to Floria, maybe. Or maybe I’ll just keep going.” 

   Steve is a thru-paddler! A thru-paddler is exactly what it sounds like: someone who is paddling through the area, from places far away to places even further. I had to meet up with a thru-paddler. 

   Anyone who meets up with a thru-paddler on their journey and helps them in some way is a River Angel. I’m not a hiker, but I’m told people who help thru-hikers are called “Trail Angels,” same thing. Anyone who helps someone who is travelling, especially by human power, is an Angel of some sort. I’ve met many River Angels on my journeys down the Rivers. Some I plan to meet up with, some are spontaneous strangers. They offer various things: food, water, shower, laundry, a place to sleep, rides into town, money, more contacts down the river, or even just a friendly face after weeks of isolation. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, it’s that these people are the most important and lasting part of the journey. 

   I met up with Tow Head Steve, drove to Breaux Bridge with my canoe in my truck. Steve was camped out in back of a building that a river angel owned. Steve’s red canoe, Further, was tied up on a dock in the Bayou Teche. I spotted the river traveller look immediately; this was my guy. Clothes like a cross between a hunter and the homeless. Scruff, weathered. Worn gear piled about in some organization known only to the traveller. Movements with the assuredness of someone who can leave at any moment. Steve and I didn’t say words as we embraced, we just smiled and laughed. The spirit of the river flowed through him, and recognized the river in me. Words are not necessary to understand the bond between river rats. I know we shouldn’t be in close contact, but Steve didn’t mind and I know travelling on the river quarantines people quite effectively. 

   We sat down to chat and immediately I was in river mode again. We spoke of the same river angels we had met since Steve intercepted the Mississippi River in Cairo, Illinois. We reminisced about particular river bends, certain towns and similar experiences with tugboats, wing dikes, and camping. In society, I actually rarely speak of my time on the rivers. If it comes up in conversation, I’ll speak of it, but I don’t usually volunteer the information. For one, I don’t want to come off as cocky and arrogant. But more than that, I feel a bit outcast with my experiences. Nobody really knows what it’s like out there, unless you have been out there too. On top of that, nobody really understands what it’s like to come back into society with the river imprinted on your soul. Like a secret club, those who have travelled on the rivers carry with them the flow of the water, and when you meet someone who has the same current, you join rivers and a friendship of shared experiences is made. 


   I realized as I chatted with Steve that I haven’t mentally gotten off the water since formally finishing my expedition three months ago. I never really transitioned. A piece of me still lives on the water. I don’t have a home. I sleep in the places of gracious friends and family, alternating, moving. My sparse things are in boxes and crates. I scavenge food, and the last couple of weeks I’ve even been eating my camping food leftover from the river trip. I have two jobs, but send massive payments every month to pay off my ocean rowboat, so I live on the bare minimum. I unloaded my canoe Edna into the Bayou Teche and tied her up next to Steve’s boat. I placed a hand on her bow as she gently tracked side to side in the slow current. 

   “Are you going home?” I asked Steve. His eyes squinted as he smiled. He placed a hand on the bow of his own canoe. 

   “I am home.” 

  And I realized that I was, too. Here, with my boat by my side, the water under her belly, this was home. I told Steve about my next boat, the ocean rowboat. My next home. His eyes sparkled with the beginnings of tears. You get it, he said. You understand. You know what I mean when I say the boat is my home. 

   Steve’s eyes shone a lot with tears these days. “I’ve never cried like this in my entire life. The last time I remember crying was when my dad died, and now on the river I cry every day.” he told me. And I realized again that I’ve never really left the rivers. The river has a way of bringing your heart close to the surface, and your emotions become easily accessible and raw. In society, this isn’t accepted readily. One is supposed to cry alone, and not become too passionate about things in front of people. One is supposed to talk plainly and not poetically. And one certainly shouldn’t cry about the river, or anything, in conversation. But I knew travelling on the water changed all that, and I understood the way Steve’s heart was bared to the world. Mine still felt like doing that, too.

   “There are four words I think of when I’m paddling.” Steve told me. “The first one is: Thanks. Man oh man, one little word: Thanks. I have a poem I’ll read to you about Thanks.” And he did read to me the poem, in a mostly-empty restaurant later that day. He read it out loud with maximum passion and minimum embarrassment. The rules of polite society are ignored when the river changes your priorities. Poems can be read aloud in restaurants. Songs can be sung from the swamps. One line stuck with me from the poem by Pablo Neruda that Steve read, entitled “Thanks.”

fan out
into the wilds,
and in the jungle
of strangers…”


   River family. Steve was the newest addition to my river family, and like all members of my family, they were once strangers. Now, when I think of the people that are up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, my heart feels full. These people are not passing people in my life, vestiges from the roamings of my early 20’s. My river family is a lifelong group of friends, and even while I am gone from the rivers onto the ocean, I will be rowing to return to them. They know who they are. My river angels, my friends, my mentors, my family. I found my people, and they give me a sense of home. 

   I’ve been speaking of my river family for a long time, ever since I started meeting them on the Missouri River in 2017. My parents were not quite sure what I meant, and were initially a little leery of these people I kept speaking of. When my parents did eventually get to meet some of the river family, they were put at ease. These people look out for each other, my dad realized. And they are rather protective of me, one of the youngest members of the family. We check in on each other, we collaborate, we river angel thru-paddlers, meet up when we can, and most importantly, we all care deeply for the water.

   Steve was not the only new addition to my river family. This week, because of Steve, I got to meet some relatives: the Bayou Family. 

   I’ve been living in South Louisiana for three years now and haven’t met many other paddlers, though I know they are out there. I tend to keep my head down and do things by myself without much hubbub. I’ll paddle and go camping in the basin alone and come back and not say a word about it all. It’s not that I don’t want to meet other people that care about the water; I just like to be alone on the water. But, I know that connections with other people are what keep us human, and what brings us love. And I know I am not the only one here who cares about the water. 


   The day I met Steve, I went rowing by myself for about 6 hours in the Bayou Teche. I wasn’t going to the bayou without a boat, and if I had a boat, I was going to row. I then left my canoe Edna at the dock overnight. Not recommended, and I have to say I didn’t sleep too well at my friend’s house that night knowing my canoe was out in the open, unlocked and vulnerable. But Steve’s boat was there, with Steve himself sleeping in his tent nearby. I left my canoe there because I knew I would be back the next day; Steve and I were going to be interviewed by the Breaux Bridge newspaper. 

   The next day, I came straight from my flights at the airport and went back to Breaux Bridge for the interview and to collect my canoe. I wanted to have the canoe there, as people aren’t quite sure what I mean when I say “rowing canoe.” I parked my truck next to a man who was getting out of his vehicle. The man carried a small legal pad and a nice camera and I guessed he was with the newspaper. I followed him to Steve’s camp, which already had some visitors. Present was Corey, a soft-spoken man with a beard who ran the Bayou Teche Experience and was the river angel responsible for giving Steve a place to pitch his tent. I had met Corey yesterday along with Ray, who was also there. Ray was an older gentleman, and had with him a friendly medium-sized brown dog with soft velvet hair. Ray was the one who organized the newspaper interview the day before; he knew everybody in the area. Also there were two women from the Teche Restoration project, a nonprofit that runs bayou cleanups, organizes events on the water, creates docks and waterways, and is generally responsible for care of the beautiful and historical Bayou Teche. 

   I suddenly found myself in the presence of more people than I had been with at one time in a while. The small group stood in a loose crowd and chatted. I cannot remember the name of the newspaper interviewer, but I got along with him well because he is a rower, too! We were both excited about that; it’s not often in south Louisiana you meet someone else who rows. I also got to talk to Patti and Tami with the Teche Restoration project. I showed them my canoe Edna – I always want to show people the rowing rig, but especially women. I feel like it opens up a whole new world of independence for people with less raw strength to be able to propel larger craft, and get around quicker. This gives you more independence on the water, expands the range of water you can explore, and makes you more maneuverable and thus safer. I don’t understand why rowing isn’t more popular; it just makes sense in so many ways. Perhaps I can help convert more paddlers to oars. 

   I also got to talk more with Mr. Ray, who was the same age as my Pápá and knew him from back in the day. My Pápá was a well-known state representative of the area for sixteen years and I’m always running into people who knew him. Ray was impressed by my future expedition around the world in a rowboat, and had visited my website and looked at pictures of my ocean rowboat. He seemed keen to help in some way, and offered to let me keep my canoe Edna in his boat slip on the Teche. I jumped on the opportunity; I don’t have a home, which means my canoe doesn’t, either. And this would eliminate the need to transport the canoe to a body of water to train, which is always a hassle no matter the distance. 

  I loaded up Edna in my truck and drove to my new friend Mr. Ray’s impressive house right off the Teche. We settled Edna up on straps in the slip and I left her there in her new temporary home. Mr. Ray and I talked more, and I asked him about his life, his successes and how he navigated the world. I am always interested in the paths people’s lives take them, and how they look back on their time here. I’m at an age where I can go many different directions with my life – listening to how others have found their way helps me find my own. Mr. Ray said I could come to the boat slip anytime, and I left my faithful canoe there. 

   I trusted him to watch her; Ray was now part of my Bayou Family, along with all the other people I had met that day. I drove back, thinking of the group of people I now knew, a small section of a larger Bayou Family that I was now beginning to meet. My river family here in south Louisiana. It all seemed to be coming together: my river family, my bayou family, and my slow but steady progress to the sea. 


   Lake Martin. Corey with the Bayou Teche Experience wanted to take Tow Head Steve out into a swampy area to show him some Louisiana marsh before sending him on his way downstream. Lake Martin is like a mini-swamp, a 2-mile pond fringed by cypress forest. I was invited, I accepted, and drove to the lake where Corey had brought two canoes and Steve. I walked up to my new friends, who were lounging by the trailer in the bright sun. The sky was fiercely blue, the wind was down, and the water alluring. But one thing was bothering me. I leaned on Corey’s truck and grinned at Steve. 

   “So what are the other three words you think of while paddling? You only told me one.”

   Steve chuckled and shook his head, looking up at me from his seat on the trailer. 

   “You didn’t forget!” he exclaimed.

   I tapped the side of my head with a finger. “I didn’t forget.”

   “Okay, just for you. There’s Thanks, which I already told you. Then there’s Gratitude, Home, and Love. Those are the four words I think about when I’m paddling.”

   I memorized them quickly. I would think about them, too. 

   The lake beckoned, and we slid our canoes into the calm water. I was in bow seat with Steve in the stern, and Corey padded a double blade in his canoe with his little brown-and-white dog Luna. Luna’s mom had gotten eaten by a gator but Luna didn’t let that keep her from going on the water. She settled in Corey’s canoe in true river dog fashion. Off the two canoes went, with Steve voicing his wonder at the scenery around us. It was strange for me to be on the water with other people; I’m a quiet paddler. But Steve’s constant stream of words were like a monologue of gratitude.

   “Wow look at that, this is just amazing, these trees, you know I’ve never seen anything like this. Oh man on man this is so cool you guys. A gator, wow look at that big fella there, hi Mr. gator, how are you today, you look like you’re doing well, let me tell you you’ve got a sweet spot here, a pretty sweet gig being a gator here. Oh look at that big white bird over there, how incredible, what’s that a heron? I’ve been seeing herons all down the river. Flying psychiatrists, that’s what I call herons.”

   I couldn’t help but laugh. A true laugh like I haven’t felt in a while. 

   “Flying psychiatrists?” I had to ask. 

   “Yeah you know you get close to them and if they don’t fly away you can tell them all your problems and let me tell ya two minutes talking to one of those birds is like two hours talking to a psychiatrist.” 

   I am forever going to call herons flying psychiatrists. 


   We had paddled and chatted and had now reached the swampy end of the lake. 

   “I’m glad I saw you again Ellen, because there’s a song I wanted to sing to you.” said Steve as he rummaged around in his jacket. He had told me before of a song, and was one of the many reasons I wanted to meet up with Tow Head Steve again. There were more gifts this man had to bestow. Poems, four words of wisdom, a song. A ragged piece of paper appeared from Steve’s jacket. He smoothed it on one knee, cleared his throat, and proceeded to sing. 

   The entire swamp perked its ears. The black cormorants watched first with disdain and then eventual curiosity. The gators swiveled pointed noses our way, frowning and then listening. The fish ducked for cover and then peeked slowly out from their hiding-holes. Corey’s dog Luna whined to the tune of Steve’s singing before settling down in her human’s lap. And we drifted, and we listened, and Steve sang. 

   The song was a haunting tune reminiscent of an Irish sea shanty. Written by Stan Rogers, it was called “Northwest Passage,” and was about the famous quest for a water route across the northern part of North America. Steve was in the merchant-marines and had been all around the world by boat. He knew the sea, and he was excited for me to know it, too. It’s alive, he had said, his voice cracking. The ocean is alive. It’s where all souls go. 

   The song spoke of water thousands of miles away from the swamp we sat in. But that didn’t matter. All water knows all water. The rivers know the ocean they are flowing to. The sea knows every pond and lake. The glaciers know the bayou. The rain comes from everywhere. The water is sacred, and the water connects us all. It connects Lake Martin to the Bayou Teche to the Northwest Passage. And I know when I am on the sea, the river will still be with me. 

“How then am I so different

From the first men through this way?

Like them, I left a settled life

I threw it all away

To seek a Northwest Passage 

At the call of many men

To find there but the road back home again.”

14 thoughts on “River Family”

  1. Gulp! Smiling, now grinning! Thank you again – for sharing Towhead Steve, for recounting his words, his tune. Cannot compare to you guys, but I’m as near as can be, for now. These words you weave! They are a strong and mighty fabric to have and to hold. Thank you again!

  2. Susan Thompson

    Ellen, I have enjoyed your beautiful writing. Steve is my cousin and he shared your story with me.
    Fondly, Susan

  3. Wow, what brilliant writing. We met Tow Head Steve at the Bayou Tesche Experience, he has a lot of love to give the world. “You gotta meet Ellen,” he said, with the vibrant enthusiasm of a Mardi Gras crowd, “she gets it!” We paddled a week in the swamp. As John Muir said, we weren’t going out, we were going in. Steve told us about your devotion to your big trip, and I thought, “wow, you go in that far and you’ll surely feel the love of family in fathoms.” Here it is, in every drop of water.

  4. Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this post plus the rest of the website is extremely good. Dion Ernesto Dietrich

  5. Peggy Manes

    Always in my thoughts forever in my heart., It’s always been my honor and privilege to say I know you Ellen. See you at the River.

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